Safety summit 2005: Four years ago, at the 2001 safety summit, the government challenged construction to face up to its appalling safety record. As the next summit convenes, the industry says it’s setting its house in order – and now wants the government to do the same.

Who is going to stop this happening?
Who is going to stop this happening?

Next week, as the construction industry gathers for its second health and safety summit, the mood is unlikely to be self-congratulatory. Memories will be fresh of the incident, just last week, that killed two men and injured a third on a Willmott Dixon schools project for West Sussex council. Although it is too early to point the finger of blame in any one direction, the deaths serve as a tragic reminder of how construction is still killing its workers.

Four years on from the industry’s inaugural safety summit in February 2001, and following the industry-led initiatives that originated in the Revitalising Safety campaign of the same year, a cynic might say that little has changed. In 2003/04, 70 workers died in the industry – a figure that showed no improvement from the previous year and in some regions actually represented an increase (see map overleaf). It is clear the industry will miss the target it set in 2000 of a 40% reduction in fatality rates by 2004/05.

But there is a growing sense among contractors that they are carrying more than their fair share of the blame for the stubbornly high accident rates on construction sites. Their complaint is that they are investing large sums on ensuring they meet stringent safety tests, only to find that clients favour tender bids by competitors who have cut safety corners. It seems that the “lowest cost” culture still prevails in some quarters – and it is costing lives.

In particular, the industry wants the government, in its role as public sector client, to take a lead in ensuring safety is at the top of the agenda when appointing contractors to all publicly funded projects.

A leadership role

It doesn’t sound much to ask. At the 2001 safety summit, the government and Health and Safety Executive urged the industry to take responsibility for its poor safety record. Bill Callaghan, chair of the summit, said: “John Prescott and I have challenged the industry to come up with the highest level of commitment for change to the culture in the construction industry.” Now, with a request for a level playing field, the industry is presenting its own challenge to government.

John Spanswick, chairman of the Major Contractors’ Group safety group and chief executive of Bovis Lend Lease in Europe, is one who feels let down by the government’s lack of commitment to raising safety standards. “The government as a client does not have the influence it should have,” he says. “With some private clients we deal with, you would not even get in the door if you had a poor safety record. This isn’t always the case with government.”

Currently, government departments work to a procurement guidance note, published by the Office of Government Commerce and known as OGC10. It recommends that government departments should “consider adopting and implementing” a series of initiatives to reward good safety practice when letting contracts. These range from demanding workers hold the CSCS competency card to auditing suppliers to check they are actually complying with their stated approach to health and safety.

However, a National Audit Office report published last May found that “some public sector bodies focus too much on the lowest price in a tender evaluation and not enough on issues that take account of health and safety.”

Andy Sneddon, safety director at the Construction Confederation, agrees, saying that his members have found that the government stance on procurement enshrined in OGC10 is not always put into action. “Our members don’t see an awful lot of engagement from government. There is no auditing procedure for OGC10.”

He believes this won’t change unless the voluntary guidance is made mandatory. “It’s easy to make grand statements, but another thing to make these work in practice. The way the government acts as a client reflects the difficulty of implementing voluntary safety codes.”

Spanswick agrees that the use of OGC10 is not consistent across government procurement. “The Ministry of Defence for example is very good and a model of best practice, but this is not emulated in other big spending departments.” He wants to see mandatory consistency of best practice on government sites as a big step towards having an industry-wide safety code, in the belief that other clients will follow the government’s lead.

Some private clients wouldn’t even let you in the door if you had a poor safety record. This isn’t always the case with government

John Spanswick, MCG chairman

The government accepts that it can take a leadership role in this way, but argues that there is no evidence that OGC10 fails contractors that have a “safety first” policy. On the other hand, neither the HSE nor the OGC hold records of the tests applied to companies.

To clarify the position, health and safety minister Jane Kennedy has now asked the Major Contractors’ Group to provide factual evidence of low cost prevailing over safety. The MCG is currently conducting a survey to find out how widespread the issue is. But while the results are awaited, other figures already available make interesting reading.

There is evidence of public bodies at local authority level compromising on health and safety standards. In 2003, the Specialist Engineering Contractors group conducted a survey among members who worked for local authority clients, asking whether health and safety was regarded as an important factor in the awarding of contracts. The results make gloomy reading: 16% of the 386 companies questioned admitted that health and safety was never an important factor during the procurement process.

The HSE says the majority of incidents occur on small, poorly managed construction sites rather than major public sector projects. But in a breakdown of HSE statistics according to site size, more than a third (36.4%) of all fatalities in 2003/04 occurred on sites with 15 or more workers. So it’s not just small, private sites that are killing and injuring construction workers.

The HSE could not provide data on the number of cases it prosecutes that originated on public sector sites, and a spokesperson said that he could not remember any such incidents. But there is little doubt that major publicly funded schemes – where the contractors were presumably appointed subject to the tests contained in OGC10 – are also responsible for adding to the industry’s mortality rate, as last week’s tragic fatalities in West Sussex indicate. Last February, for example, contractor Eugena Construction was fined £40,000 following the death of a worker who fell from an unguarded edge of a scaffolding platform. He was working at St Thomas’ Hospital, London, for the Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Trust.

‘An unnecessary expenditure’

If client organisations fail to prioritise health and safety when assessing rival contractors, it’s not just the physical well-being of workers that is put at risk. There are also financial problems for companies that invest large sums on addressing safety issues but then find themselves undercut. The financial cost of stringent safety procedures can be high: and although companies are not complaining, they understandably want their competitors to face the same hurdles.

This can be a severe problem, particularly for small contractors, who are most financially disadvantaged by competing against firms who do not comply with safety regulations. When project budgets are smaller, they are more likely to find themselves in competition with firms that disregard safety measures. One company caught in this situation is Oxford-based Knowles & Son, a builder with a £15m-a-year turnover. The firm estimates that it spends between £90,000 and £100,000 per year on safety, including the salary of a full-time safety co-ordinator who looks after employee training. This extra cost makes it difficult to compete with contractors who are less exacting. “We are finding the market very competitive at the moment, probably worse than ever,” says Chris Magee, managing director. “Price is still how most clients choose contracts.”

Part of the problem for companies such as Knowles & Son is that the absence of a universally accepted safety code means it must prequalify for numerous schemes when bidding. It recently joined the Contractors Health and Safety Assessment Scheme in the hope that this would allow it to meet most industry requirements, but Magee says the reality is very different. “In practice we are paying out to meet different requirements for different projects,” he says. “That deters a lot of firms from trying.”

A specialist contractor who did not wish to be identified agrees. “Safety is viewed as an unnecessary expenditure by a lot of smaller firms,” he says, “as many think they are more likely to win work without it.”

Nobody is disputing HSE claims that most incidents occur on small, poorly managed construction sites rather than landmark public sector projects. But there is a growing feeling within the industry that the government, by making some form of health and safety guidance mandatory, could have a real impact down the supply chain. This could be tougher application of OGC10, CSCS cards, or even a sentence-long clause in a contract. But if it chooses not to act, it could lose the industry commitment it tried so hard to gain in 2001.

Four years on ...

  • 70 workers died in construction in 2003/4, the same level as in 2002/03

  • Of these fatalities, 51 were employees and 19 were self-employed workers. In 2002/03, 56 were employees and 14 were self-employed

  • The rate of fatal injury was 3.5 per 100,000 workers, which represents only a 25.5% reduction from the baseline rate of 4.7 per 100,000 in 1999/2000

  • There were 4001 major injuries to employees in 2003/4, compared with 4031 in 2002/03

  • Falls from height accounted for 28% of major injuries to employees in 2003/04; 27% were from slipping and tripping, 16% from being hit by moving or falling objects, and 14% from lifting or carrying